Moviegoers, in case you haven't noticed, are in the midst of a siege of films about the war in Iraq and the politics of the post-9/11 world (at this point, the two are inseparable). So far, though, it isn't at all clear that moviegoers are interested. The box office tells a part of the story. One look at the grosses for In the Valley of Elah, which for all its quiet, scalding power has yet to crack the $10 million mark, or No End in Sight, the rapturously reviewed how-the-Iraq-war-was-bungled documentary that's had a tough time gaining traction even within the indie/art-house market, and it's clear that these pictures won't be setting any records. The Kingdom, with its vengeful third-act slide into bombs-away demagoguery, has done a bit better, the way a movie that blows stuff up real good will always do better. But that doesn't necessarily bode well for such upcoming releases as Robert Redford's Afghanistan-war meditation, Lions for Lambs; the Tom Hanks-Mike Nichols backroom docudrama Charlie Wilson's War, also about Afghanistan; or the melancholy Sundance road movie Grace Is Gone, with John Cusack as a man who loses his soldier wife in Iraq yet can't bring himself to break the news to his children.
The dispiriting cold truth is that the post-9/11 films we've seen so far have struggled, in any real sense, to enter the national bloodstream, the collective conversation. Which raises the question: These days, when a message movie falls in the forest, does it make a sound?
Rendition, this week's furrowed-brow topical special, could wind up making a few audible squawks, if only because it's so showy and crude about a subject so inherently volatile and hard-hitting. A grimly star-studded melodrama, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon sharing actor-with-a-conscience virtue points if not a single scene together, the film takes a long, hard look at the current American policy of ''extraordinary rendition'' the outsourcing of terror suspects to secret overseas prisons, where the rules of interrogation are, to put it mildly, a bit more lax than they are here.
A suicide bomb goes off in a crowded urban courtyard in North Africa, and a man many miles away is taken into custody. His name is Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally). He's a chemical engineer, born in Egypt but a 20-year resident of the U.S., who from what we can tell has done nothing wrong. He's even married to a woman played by sweet, blond, perky Reese (who's about to give birth to their second child). Talk about a detainee who's non-terrorist material! Nevertheless, the authorities are convinced that he has taken calls on his cell phone from the terrorist who planned the bombing. And so he is shipped to North Africa and questioned. With extreme prejudice.
There's a drama if that's the right word for it inherent in the spectacle of an innocent man stripped naked, thrown into a stone prison hole, and subjected to such advanced interrogation techniques as having water poured over his hooded face or being hung up on chains and given electric shocks. Rendition exerts an undeniable brute grip when it rubs our noses in the ugliness of recent American actions. Meryl Streep, as the high-handed CIA official who orders the interrogation and defends it with ''compassionate'' logic (i.e., she's potentially saving the lives of thousands of innocents), mimics the current rhetoric of the Bush-Cheney administration with a drawlingly amused corporate smugness.
Yet none of that makes Rendition a good movie. It makes it an easy-to-scan Hollywood editorial. Gyllenhaal, as the inexperienced CIA analyst who witnesses the interrogation, looks even more out of place than his character is supposed to be, and Igal Naor, as the head torturer, glowers like a James Bond villain. Too much of the film is taken up with an Osama and Juliet subplot about the torturer's young daughter and the boyish Islamic fundamentalist she falls in love with. Rendition certainly makes the case that torture, whatever name it goes under, is indefensible, yet one can agree with that view entirely and still feel that the movie is just a borderline exploitation of what anyone who reads the papers already knows.
Will Rendition find an audience? You could argue that this earnest, wooden slab of liberal agitprop scarcely deserves an audience. Perhaps it's simply ''too soon'' to be watching movies that turn yesterday's controversial headlines about the war on terror into digestible megaplex entertainment.
All the same, I can't help but wonder if ''too soon'' has become not just our explanation but our excuse a knee-jerk justification for an America that has checked out on the promise of movies that delve into the issues of our time. It was close to 30 years ago that the Hollywood Vietnam films Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now began to trickle out, and though the war, of course, had been over for three years, the impact of those movies was seismic. For a while, they were the conversation. Since we're still in the bloody middle of the Iraq mess, and images of it however superficial come blaring at us from the 24/7 news culture, it may be that people simply feel wrung out by it. The last thing on earth they may want to see on the big screen is tortured innocents, or dead soldiers.
Yet it's worth asking if American moviegoers, even as they've grown disillusioned with the war, now want to numb that disillusion instead of exploring it. That a film as potent in its revelations and as dazzlingly executed as No End in Sight could barely make a discernible dent in the indie box office pie is enough to give one pause. When the day arrives (and it will) that the war starts winding down, is it really probable that we'll want to see movies about it three years afterward? These films are coming out now because they're at least trying to make sense of a world gone awry, and to fill in the gaps left open by the news media. The time is right or, at least, as right as it may ever be. Better too soon than too late. Rendition: C+